NASA’S Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft recently arrived at the near-Earth asteroid (101955) Bennu, a primitive body that represents the objects that may have brought prebiotic molecules and volatiles such as water to Earth1. Bennu is a low-albedo B-type asteroid2 that has been linked to organic-rich hydrated carbonaceous chondrites3. Such meteorites are altered by ejection from their parent body and contaminated by atmospheric entry and terrestrial microbes. Therefore, the primary mission objective is to return a sample of Bennu to Earth that is pristine—that is, not affected by these processes4. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft carries a sophisticated suite of instruments to characterize Bennu’s global properties, support the selection of a sampling site and document that site at a sub-centimetre scale5,6,7,8,9,10,11. Here we consider early OSIRIS-REx observations of Bennu to understand how the asteroid’s properties compare to pre-encounter expectations and to assess the prospects for sample return. The bulk composition of Bennu appears to be hydrated and volatile-rich, as expected. However, in contrast to pre-encounter modelling of Bennu’s thermal inertia12 and radar polarization ratios13—which indicated a generally smooth surface covered by centimetre-scale particles—resolved imaging reveals an unexpected surficial diversity. The albedo, texture, particle size and roughness are beyond the spacecraft design specifications. On the basis of our pre-encounter knowledge, we developed a sampling strategy to target 50-metre-diameter patches of loose regolith with grain sizes smaller than two centimetres4. We observe only a small number of apparently hazard-free regions, of the order of 5 to 20 metres in extent, the sampling of which poses a substantial challenge to mission success.
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Data used in the plots in Figs. 1, 2 are available with this manuscript as Source Data. Raw and calibrated datasets will be available via the Planetary Data System (PDS) (https://sbn.psi.edu/pds/resource/orex/). Data are delivered to the PDS according to the OSIRIS-REx Data Management Plan, available in the OSIRIS-REx PDS archive. Higher-level products—for example, global mosaics and elevation maps—will be available in the Planetary Data System PDS one year after departure from the asteroid.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
This material is based on work supported by NASA under contract NNM10AA11C, issued through the New Frontiers Program.
Nature thanks Harry Y. McSween Jr and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
About this article
Nature Geoscience (2019)